By Mario Rodriguez Graniel, MBA’15.
For years, Cuba’s restaurant scene was dominated by lackluster, drab state-owned restaurants. However, recently, there has been a shift in the country’s culinary scene due to the increase in privately-owned restaurants, or paladares. Paladares, which are usually family-run restaurants in people’s homes, first appeared during the 1990s, when the fall of the Soviet Union and consequent economic crisis forced the Cuban government to make economic reforms including allowing ownership of private businesses. Unfortunately, due to stringent regulations put in place by the government regarding quotas on the amount and type of products offered, limits on the number of seats allowed (only 12), and strict labor hiring rules, only a few paladares survived.
In May 2011, in an effort to shift toward a more free market economy, President Raul Castro’s government announced a new reform plan allowing some state-owned businesses, such as barbershops or restaurants, to become private. Havana currently has almost 2,000 private restaurants, a drastic increase from 2010, when the state reported only 74 private restaurants in the country’s capital.
A best-in-class example of a successful cooperative in the restaurant industry is La Guarida, a leading paladar in Havana. Opened in July, 1996, La Guarida resides in a magnificent early 20th century building, which used to be the owners’ multifamily residence. While the restaurant received early recognition due to its portrayal in the Fresa y Chocolate movie, its success was hampered by the series of regulations imposed at the time. Limiting seating to 12 customers at a time and only allowing family-member hires influenced the business’ growth potential and its scalability. Therefore, the owner decided to move to Miami with his family in order to open a restaurant there instead.
Years later, when the government decided to loosen the regulation for private enterprises, the family decided to move back and invest in the business. The seating regulation now allows owners to have two licenses, permitting 50 customers at each sitting, and restaurant owners can now hire any employee without government interference. The restaurant has received numerous prizes and certifications and prides itself from offering the most elegant and highest-quality cuisine in Havana, which is reflected in it being fully booked for months and years at a time – mostly by foreigners given that locals cannot afford such a restaurant experience.
We had an incredible time when we visited the restaurant. We were hosted by the founder and enjoyed the most succulent meal we had in Cuba and maybe in general. You should definitely go enjoy both the food and the venue!